S1E8: Why everybody says sorry too much and how we can stop
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Sean O'Meara, founder of Essential Content, publicist and co-author of The Apology Impulse, tells Daisy how the business world ruined sorry and why we can't stop saying it.
We talk about why you should think twice before apologising, how to avoid making an awful apology, and what the best apologies include. With lots of horrifying examples and practical tips thrown in.
The main lessons?:
Stop making promises that you can’t keep
Have a plan for when things go wrong – not just a full blown crisis plan but one that includes minor messes and medium embarrassments
When bad things happen your first step should be to decide whether you are, actually sorry at all
If you are, in fact, sorry then take time to decide HOW sorry you are and what you are going to DO about it. The best apologies explain what will change as a result
Try to do all of this without resorting to jargon or dehumanising legalese
For all this and many more practical examples, listen here:
Or read the transcript in full here:
Sean O’Meara: Hi, I'm Sean O’Meara. I'm a publicist and author of The Apology Impulse.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: Welcome to Why Everybody Hates You, an audio support group for reputation professionals. If you have any responsibility for how people talk, think, and feel about your organisation, then you are in the right place. My name is Daisy Powell-Chandler and today I'm speaking to Sean O'Meara, publicist and founder of digital consultancy Essential Content, about The Apology Impulse: the book he co-authored with Professor Cary Cooper.
Hi, Sean. Thank you so much for joining me today. Why are we all apologising so much?
Sean O’Meara: Pleasure to be here! I think the short answer to that is social media. The [00:01:00] act of apologising has, I think, become a little bit degraded since brands decided it was a good idea to get on Twitter. There is a longer answer, and it ties in with crisis planning, general corporate habits and a few other things, but the short version of the answer to that question is when you commit to social media as an organisation, you commit to a higher degree of accountability, a ridiculous degree of visibility, and you effectively commit to saying sorry to anybody and everybody. The brands and organisations that do it the most are the ones that haven't thought about how to deal with feedback properly and they think that when they are criticised, the only option they have is to say sorry - which isn't true.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: So, what are the other options?
Sean O’Meara: The thing I would advise most clients to do [00:02:00] when they deal with online criticism…it's either going to be private via email or it's going to be public. So, the first thing they need to do is decide if they are in the wrong - and there is a process for doing that. You look at obviously the law…it depends what you're being criticised for…so you start at the top. You go “right, have we broken any laws? Have we done anything that is demonstrably terrible?” In most cases, no…and then to decide whether you need to apologise, you compare your conduct, the reality of your conduct (how your conduct is perceived) and you look at your own policies and your own values. If they're out of whack and you've done some things, that may not be illegal or, you know, against the regulator, but doesn't accord with your values as you stated them, then I think you should consider giving an apology.
But [00:03:00] most of the apologies we looked at in the book were reflexive, they were the consequence of an organisation that didn't have a plan, that didn't understand that instead of apologising you can explain…and I think that's where the gap is at the minute. The sheer volume of apologies that we're seeing now…we actually measured them – in the average month you'll get at least one big organisation apologising every day. Most of them, I think, were the result of not having any other options or feeling like they had no other options and actually being scared of having to put out flames on social media. So, companies/organisations treat an apology almost like a nuisance payment where they think “right if we just issue this small cheque, this [00:04:00] person will go away” - and it's never how it pans out.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: So why did you decide to write a book about apologising?
Sean O’Meara: Well, I'm going to give credit to a client called Kiwi Movers. They are based in Wandsworth and they are exceptional. Obviously, I'm no longer their publicist so that was completely honest. We had a situation where the director of this company rang me and said, “we're being criticised on social media”. I said, “okay…”, and I was already sort of drafting an apology in my head before he even told me what the problem was. There was a problem, but the problem was that this customer hadn't really paid attention to what he was told at the start.
So, he was trying to move some expensive tools from the UK to New Zealand. And when you're a logistics company, obviously there were a lot of moving parts and you're relying on other partners/third parties, and I explained to him [the angry customer] quite clearly [00:05:00] that you’re responsible for your customer's declaration. We can't do that legally - you need to do it, you need to fill this paperwork in. We can help you do it, but you've got to be the person who signs it, sends it off. You've not done it properly and all the tools have been held up in customs at the destination. So, he's over there in New Zealand, he's waiting for his tools because…he was a very niche trades person and he had special tools and he had gone over for a job…he couldn’t work, he was losing money, he was flipping out and decided he was going to criticise my client.
So when they told me, I started writing the apology in my head and I said to the client [Kiwi Movers], “okay, here's what we should do. First things first, let's think of how to say sorry”. And he said, “well, we haven't done anything wrong and I don't want to appear like we have”. I said, “well, that's not how it works. It's social media. We've got to say, sorry”. And he said, “well, I don't want to. It's not my fault”. And he actually overruled me, and he taught me a [00:06:00] very valuable lesson - two valuable lessons. If you care about the word “sorry”, you ration it, because it's like anything: if you keep issuing apologies, they lose value. So, he taught me that pretty quickly, and he did actually say if I apologise now, and then I need to apologise properly in future, it's going to lack sincerity. So he taught me that, and he also made me realise that when you don't say “sorry” it's actually quite rare that anything bad happens - which is a good lesson for any publicist: it's not the end of the world if you don't say “sorry”.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: However, we are all apologising more and more. How can we repress that urge?
Sean O’Meara: So the first thing you need to do is, depending on the situation, if you're in charge of communicating on behalf of a brand, the first thing you need to do is take a deep breath. This is because the spotlight's effect is a very powerful [00:07:00] bias, and I think we all suffer from it. When you're being tweeted at by let's say 20 people who were upset about your advert and one of them has got a ‘blue tick’, it can feel like the world is about to collapse all around you. So, take a breath because the thing to remember is it's also happening to probably a hundred different brands in that moment on social media.
Look at what's happened, actually try and assess your culpability really coldly and try to detach yourself and say, “is this something I would get angry at this brand about?”. And then there becomes a fork in the road where you’re either sorry, or you're not. You've either done something wrong and you want to repair the damage, you want to protect your reputation and if you’re apologising sincerely, you actually want to give some degree of comfort and reconciliation to the person you're apologising to. People forget about that as well: there is a victim when you apologise. [00:08:00] So, if you've done something wrong, you want to take that path. If you haven't done something wrong, you need to stand firm. It's your obligation as a professional communicator, I think, to protect the integrity of the apology. So, if you're one of these brands that is apologising every other week for something (and they do exist), your part of the problem I think because apologies aren't notable anymore. Part of that is because brands just say sorry as a kind of a PR throat clearing exercise, whereas really the apology should be reserved for big, important situations where you think, “yeah, we've messed up. We do owe people an apology. Let's get it right. And let's then focus on making sure we don't repeat the thing that we're today apologising for”.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: So, what does a great apology look like?
Sean O’Meara: A great apology is brief: [00:09:00] it doesn't contain lots of what I would call waffle, and that’s quite broad. So, I'll describe a bad apology and then I'll remove the elements of a bad apology and then you'll have what's left over as a good apology. So, one of the key habits that we identified in the book was this evasive type of language where brands were sort of copping to it, but not quite. They wouldn't really speak to what they had done, they were more apologising for people being obsessed about it. Mark Zuckerberg is the undisputed champ of this kind of apology as well. He would say, instead of something like, “here's what we did wrong, here's what we're going to do to fix it. We're really sorry”, he would say, “well, we missed the mark, or we got it wrong”, or “we misjudged this”.
People hate that. Consumers hate that kind of language because it just feels like it [00:10:00] comes from a boiler plate of weak, willy language. So don't say, “we missed the mark”, don't say, “we didn't live up to our high standards”, because you're not in a position to talk about your high standards because you're apologising so you've clearly done something wrong. Instead say, “here's what we did”. So, KFC run out of chicken, for example. “We ran out of chicken” - they didn't miss the mark, it wasn't a logistics issue, you run out of chicken. Just call it what it is. So a good apology is frank, is to the point, and it centres the victim.
So, a lot of bad apologies tend to be inward looking on the organisation and they'll talk about their values, they’ll talk about their commitment to X, Y and Z, and how on this occasion this is a rare exception. It's always, “oh yeah - we're usually really good at this, we care about the environment…getting caught [00:11:00], our emissions being fudged (I’m not going to say who it was but everyone knows who it was), this was just a small aberration of our otherwise exceptional environmental policy”. You don't get to talk about your environmental policy when you've been busted for manipulating your emissions data.
So, take the opportunity to relieve yourself of the need to talk about why you're great. This is because a lot of organisations will take an apology as, “oh, here's an opportunity to talk about our commitment to whatever it is they're being criticised for”. So, a lot of times an apology actually starts with, “we are dedicated to”, or “we are committed to” and then “but…” – and you know there is a “but” coming as well. My favourite example of that was a company out in Canada that were responsible for analysing drug tests, and they were subcontracted to by the [00:12:00] government so it was for parents and courts. The courts were mandating these drug tests to say, “okay, is this mother still dealing with a drug problem? Can she keep her kid?”. So it was serious – it wasn’t “have you been smoking a joint before work?”, it was “are these people capable of parenting?” or “do we need to take their children away from them?”. And this drug testing company has made quite a lot of errors and a lot of children had been separated from their families based on these false positives. Now, that is actually a disaster for the families, for the children, for the courts, and for this company.
The CEO of this company still found time to talk about their high standards, their commitment to, you know, you can imagine what the apology sounded like. At no point did they say, “right, we've ruined lives here and we need to figure out [00:13:00] how to make sure it never happens again”. There was none of that. It was all, “we’ve got really high standards”…and those are the kinds of apologies that stuck with us when we were writing the book. You know, some bad apologies you can forgive, but those where there was obviously no understanding of the impact of what happened, it was “all right, we've got a PR problem, we need to just remind people that usually we are great but this time we messed up”. It started to grate on us when we were writing the book, that kind of language.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: It's not just the subject matter of the apology either, is it? It is literally the language in some cases.
Sean O’Meara: Yeah, it is. What you would find as well is the amount of jargon that people manage get into their apology. The best one, actually my favourite, was a ‘runway excursion incident’. So - what do you think a ‘runway excursion incident’ might be?
Daisy Powell-Chandler: I feel [00:14:00] like I'll be cheating because I have read the book and so I know that this isn't just a little holiday or perhaps a school trip onto the runway.
Sean O’Meara: No, it's a plane crash really. The most charitable description of it would be a minor crash landing. It is aviation terminology, but that’s how they record the ways planes crash. I think if your plane had crashed, the kind of nuance around it isn't as important as the fact that you had one job, which was to land the plane, and it didn't quite work out. So there are a few scenarios where (I mean this wasn't a fatal plane crash) if you're on the plane and, as was the case in this scenario, you are dangling over the black sea while the plane is on top of the cliff with its nose pointing down, ‘runway excursion incident’ doesn't quite cut the [00:15:00] mustard.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: Aviation is particularly bad for the jargon, isn't it? I think there's another example in the book about an ‘unauthorised take off incident’ at Seattle airport, where someone literally stole a plane and fighter jets were fielded from several states and it was quite the crisis, and eventually crashed landed onto an Island. All very dramatic and it was an ‘unauthorised take-off’.
Sean O’Meara: Yeah, an ‘unauthorised take off’. And the other one is a ‘passenger re-accommodation’. Oscar Munoz, he was the star of our book and I ended up feeling sorry for him. Professor Cary Cooper, who I wrote the book with, also commented “oh, are we being too harsh on this guy?”. I don't think we were; I don't think he's a particularly flawed communicator, he just happens to be CEO in an industry where [00:16:00] there are no minor hiccups. If you're flying a tube of metal through the sky, things can't go wrong.
Consumer anxiety is, I was going to say ‘sky high’ then, but that’s cringe, so I’m going to say extremely high. Airline passengers as consumers are in a natural state of anxiety, from the moment their alarm clock goes off in the morning and they know they've got to get on a plane. Everything is tense, you're not relaxed. So when things go wrong, it feels bigger than it is. And that could apply to when you're a bit late getting through security or, you know, the person who checked your little packet of liquids was not necessarily as quiet as they could have been. These things all add up so by the time you're on the plane, anything going wrong feels like a big deal. And as an industry, it's not necessarily their fault but it's just the nature of what they do for a living (flying planes) [00:17:00]. You can't afford to use that kind of language: it belittles the experience of the consumer.
If the consumer is delayed, that's inconvenient, it's stressful, and it can have a knock-on effect on other things. If the consumer is dragged out of their seats by security guards and they’re covered in blood, screaming and there are camera phones pointing of them, then describing that as a ‘passenger re-accommodation incident’ is misleading and also a little bit insulting to the customer because that's not what they experienced.
So, to go back to your previous question about what makes a good apology, I think frankness, directness and talking about what you did wrong is really important. The kind of jargon that gets flipped in there, it kind of looks like they're trying to disguise what happened by using this kind of woolly language.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: You also make an interesting point around [00:18:00] passive language and making things sound almost as if they were victimless. So, “mistakes happened”, “people may have been inconvenienced”, “you might experience some delays”: it's all very, bloodless, but also human-less. We've taken the people out of it, we've taken [out] the person who is blamed. I thought the example of the Oscars, where instead of saying “we got this wrong, we made a mistake”, it was very much “a mistake occurred, an incident happened”.
Sean O’Meara: Yeah. The wrong envelope was given to the host.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: Yeah. It's not “we gave the wrong envelope to the host”.
Sean O’Meara: Yeah. It's my personal bugbear as a writer by trade. When this book came out, I sent an email to my old school, because I remember the lesson on using the passive voice from year ten and Mr Atkinson, who was my English teacher, [00:19:00] wouldn't probably describe me as a star pupil or anything like that, but he did say at the time “I think you get it, Sean. I think you understand why this is important”.
We did an experiment in the classroom and it was to confess to something using the active voice and confess to something using the passive voice. He gave us the things that we'd done and mine was that I spilled a drink. So, I remember saying “oh, I've spilled a drink on the carpet” and then the next one “the drink was spilled”. And at that moment I realised how sneaky the passive voice is. So, I sent an email, and he's long retired, but I wanted to get in touch and just say, I remembered that lesson. And I also wanted to let my English teacher know I had a book published because it was my English teacher.
He emailed back and he was pleased to hear from me and all the rest of it, but that lesson, if I could repeat that lesson, if I could just sort of transplant that to lots of classrooms around the world and just say “if you're a communicator, [00:20:00] that’s your job, just never, ever use the passive voice”. I can't think of many scenarios where it's preferable, it doesn't really add anything. I think the only cases where it's preferable is, you know, with technical language where you don't necessarily know what the agent is. But yeah, it's a sneaky trick and anybody being apologised to do not accept the apology if it's delivered in the passive voice. If somebody says, “mistakes were made, drinks were spilled, feelings were hurt”, that's not an apology. “I hurt your feelings, I spilled a drink, I made a mistake” - that's how you do it. You take ownership of the failure, and by doing that you also go some way to acknowledging the damage or the pain that you've caused to the person you're apologising to.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: Which might mean that you then avoid much worse repercussions down the line, presumably.
Sean O’Meara: Yeah. I think one of the reasons that apologies are [00:21:00] so bad, and I think one of the reasons people use that kind of language, is because they're scared of getting sued. They should be scared of getting sued, but not because they say sorry. It's actually in our law in the UK and in American law, depending on the state…there are provisions. For the UK it is the compensation act, I think in 2016. There is actually a campaign at the minute, and it’s called the apology clause, I think, to help legal affairs and lawyers understand that it's a myth that saying sorry is an invitation to litigation.
I remember it when I was learning to drive and people would forever say if you ever ding anyone, never say sorry because that's an admission of guilt. The same kind of theory is found in boardrooms and legal teams - and it's not true. Saying sorry in the [00:22:00] UK can't be used in court (I think I'm right in saying this) as an admission of liability. Obviously, you can be sued for the thing that you said sorry for if you did it, but the very fact that you apologised isn't in and of itself proof that you are liable.
America is a good case study because it's state law rather than federal law, and there is roughly a 50/50 split between the states, and it applies to medical malpractice. So, in some states, if you say sorry about your nose job, or whatever, that is an admission of guilt. In some [other] states, it isn't. And in the states where it isn’t, people apologise more, medical practitioners apologise more, but they get sued less and they tend to settle on average for less (in terms of the actual, financial outcome).
The people who conducted these [00:23:00] studies think it's because actually litigation is a function of the absence of an apology - it's not the people sitting on their bed thinking “well he’s messed up my procedure, I'm going to sue him, I just need to wait for him to say sorry so I can prove he did something wrong”. They’re sitting around and thinking “he's messed up my procedure and I want him to come and apologise. If he doesn't, I'm going to sue the arse off him”. And that's where we've got it mixed up. So, lawyers are to blame for a lot of the bad apologies because they will obviously check it before it goes out and they say, “well, you can't say that, don't apologise for that, use the passive voice here”, and it's just become a norm now that we think, “oh, we've got to apologise so we better flip to the passive voice”, but you use vague language and that's why people are really unhappy about the quality of their apologies.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: We've talked a lot about the bad examples and there are plenty more in the book, which I hugely encourage people to read because it's horrifying and excellent [00:24:00]. But who's doing this well?
Sean O’Meara: General Motors: they are on the good list in the book. Their CEO, Mary Barra, I hope I’ve got her name right, she gave an exceptionally good apology and she's actually apologising for something that happened before her tenure as CEO. It was kind of a no brainer. They had an ignition switch failure in some of their cars, which was causing people to die in car crashes, which is obviously a bad outcome if you’re a car maker. And the thing that she included in her apology was the phrase “we never want to forget this”. Now, that's notable and important because a lot of times companies think “we need to move on from this”, so they want to apologise, and they want to move on. And the fact that she then baked that failure into their corporate culture going forward, they said “right, there is a reason this happened: we weren't on the ball with quality [00:25:00] assurance”. She did a proper overhaul of lots of their corporate structure and processes. It was all because she said, “I don't want anybody in this organisation to forget how badly we failed, and that is now our culture. We can never repeat this”. So, her apology was really good.
Jet Blue: I would credit them as the originators of the social media apology. It was the first time a CEO had gone on YouTube to say sorry. The video is still up, and by today's standards it's really low-tech, it's the CEO sitting in front of what I presume is like an early digital camera, he’s a little bit too close to the camera, there's no editing. He's just sitting there fumbling around with his staff pass in his hand. It's very off the cuff, but it was a sincere apology and [00:26:00] the reason it was a good apology is that it came with, what they call their ‘consumer bill of rights’. So, one of the ingredients of a proper good apology is an offer of repair. So, you say “we're sorry we messed up. Here's what we're going to do to fix it”. That offer of repair contained within it an admission that they would fail again. So he said, “next time you're delayed by an hour, this is the compensation you're going to get”. So that was good because he didn't say “our planes are always going to be on time from this day forward, we're never going to annoy you by being late”. He said, “well, we are going to be delayed because we’re an airline. Here’s what we're going to do: if you're delayed by an hour you get X, if you're delayed by a day you get Y”. And that kind of set the standard for what is now a really common thing. I think it's been ruined personally, with CEO's with soft focus and emotive music and all the language and “we let you down” and all the rest of it.
I would [00:27:00] encourage people to go and find it [the apology] - it's on YouTube. I think his name is David Neeleman - it's the guy that founded Jet Blue. You almost end up wanting to hug the guy, you can tell he is sorry. He’s sitting there, he’s really sorry, he knows his company has failed. It was all to do with the blizzard and they just weren't operationally prepared for the knock-on effects of this blizzard and I think there was like a thousand planes grounded over Valentine's weekend. So, you know, a lot of angry customers and they had to deal with it properly. Another thing that's important about that apology is that they took their time. They didn't just send out a tweet within the hour, I think it was about a week and they looked at what they'd done wrong and they did some self-reflection and they said, “right here is how we fix it”.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: What are the lessons we can all take away [00:28:00] from today? The first is to stop making promises that we can't keep. Don't promise the train will always run on time because you will disappoint people. Second, have a plan for when things go wrong: not just a full-blown crisis plan, but one that includes minor messes and medium embarrassment.
If you don't have a plan and the spotlight falls on you, it will feel as if saying sorry is your only option, but it isn't. In fact, when bad things happen, the first step should be to decide whether you are actually sorry at all. Did you do anything wrong? Did you break the law? Did you break your own policies? Did you contravene the values of the company?
If you didn't do any of those things, then you probably shouldn't be apologising. Instead, you might want to consider an explanation or even saying nothing. If you are in fact sorry, then take time to decide how [00:29:00] sorry you are and what you're going to do about it.
The best apologies explain what will change as a result. If you can do all of this without resorting to jargon or dehumanising legalese, then you might finally have mastered your apology impulse.
That's everything from us. A big thank you to my guest, Sean O'Mara, co-author of the book The Apology Impulse, which I heartily recommend. If you've enjoyed this episode, I hope you'll join me in two weeks time when I'll be interviewing Nick Baird of Centrica about why everybody hates him. To make it easier to remember, why not find us at www.whyeverybodyhatesyou.co.uk and click subscribe on your favourite podcasting app. I would also be really grateful if you would leave us a review if you get the chance, as reviews help [00:30:00] new listeners to find the show.
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